Dr Syntax should be a name known to anyone who has followed UK rap at any point during the last 10 years. Since his early days working with the likes of Foreign Beggars, to his more recent success as front man of The Mouse Outfit and his work with Pete Cannon, Syntax has built up a worthy following of fans. I recently had the chance to chat with him before The Mouse Outfit show in Bristol last month. We spoke about how he came to work with Mouse Outfit, where hip hop could be headed and his future plans with Pete Cannon.
G: So how’s the tour been going so far?
S: It’s going very well, thank you very much. We’ve had a couple of gigs so far – one in Cork a few days ago, which is only our second gig in Ireland, so that was a whole lotta fun. Then last night we were in Birmingham and it’s all gone smoothly so far.
G: How did you guys first start working together?
S: It was just a happy alignment of the stars really. I moved up to Manchester about five or six years ago, bumped into Pitch – the producer from Mouse Outfit – and originally we were just going to do a couple of songs, but then we ended up getting along like a house on fire and so now here we are.
G: Is the dynamic very different from your point of view when you’re performing with loads of live musicians, as opposed to say one DJ?
S: Yeah I mean there’s the obvious difference between rehearsals cos you’ve got to work things out, where as when I do stuff with Pete Cannon there will be more focus on me. When it’s just a DJ and MC, it’s all eyes on me, that’s the show. Not to detract from anything Pete is doing! He is a wonderful performer and brings a whole lot to the experience [laughs]. But with the whole band, you’re just one element in the big picture, so in a way the pressure is off a little bit. The rehearsals are obviously different, but a lot of that is the band working through their stuff and then I just come and do my part. So yeah it’s nice cos I feel the pressure’s off me and it’s a lot of fun.
G: You’ve been involved in UK hip hop for years now and in lots of different acts and roles; what do you think is the key to maintaining that longevity?
S: Well I definitely haven’t had a grand plan, you know like ‘Okay so for the next 15 years we’re going to do this and then that…’, so I’ve been very lucky. Certainly working with Mouse Outfit I feel has given me a second wind and as soon as I started working with them I thought why the fuck haven’t I had a band for the last 10 years? When I started out obviously I was doing stuff with Menagerie in Brighton, stuff with Professor Elemental and Tom Caruana, then with Foreign Beggars. I’ve been very lucky to work with great people, who are my friends and bring different things to the mix. And I’ve adapted to what’s gone on in that set-up so I think that’s kept things fresh.
G: Do you think it would’ve been different if you’d just tried to work it on your own the whole way, like just as a solo artist with no affiliations?
S: Well I could never go totally solo because I don’t produce or make beats, unless I was just doing poetry or something. So I’m very lucky to know so many talented people who bring so much to the table and I am able to just vibe off their ideas.
G: I know in the past you’ve played up to the fact that you maybe sound a bit more middle class than the average rapper. I was wondering if you’d ever actually got any real stick for that, like back in your battling days or whatever?
S: [Laughs] Yeah I’m sure I’m something of a Marmite taste, you might say, but I’m alright with that cos obviously if we all liked the same thing it would be very boring.
G: But did you ever experience any real negativity towards your accent when you were starting out?
S: Well ever since I started I’ve always had to prove myself and I’ve succeeded in doing that, but there’s always one person who’s like “Well who’s this guy? What’s he got?”, but I think that’s kinda true of anyone – especially with something like rapping, cos that’s just part of it, so I kind of embrace that and that’s fine. And like I say, it’s not for everyone, but it would be boring if we all liked the same thing anyway.
G: Going back to working with The Mouse Outfit, is it very different recording with them as opposed to recording with Pete, for example?
S: Yeah, I guess it’s more of a protracted process with The Mouse Outfit cos it’ll start out with an idea, from Pitch or Chini making a beat. Then they might add some element of live stuff to it and then it will come through to me, so yeah it seems to take a bit longer. But then with Pete it just seems to be, get in the studio – he’s got his own studio down in London – bang something on some of the beats he’s got going and so yeah it seems to be a lot quicker in that respect.
G: You and Pete have perhaps taken a less serious approach to making hip hop over the years, in terms of the content and subject matter. Do you feel that is what’s missing from the scene as a whole?
S: I think it once was. I think there was a time when there was some very good music, but it was all very po-faced. I mean you know I grew up listening to Public Enemy and NWA, but I also liked Biz Markie and Big Daddy Kane, so you need that balance. Now I think things have changed, I mean you look at say Dirty Dike, or Dabbla, there is a good balance. So yeah at one point people probably did take themselves a bit too seriously, but now it’s evened out nicely.
G: Do you think there is anything else that we need to see more or less of?
S: It’s hard to put my finger on to be honest, but I am amazed by the next generation coming through and what’s going on with them. People like Ocean Wisdom, people like Free Wize Men from Manchester – you know, I think this next generation have got a lot to offer and they’re going to keep us old timers on our toes.
G: I think that question stemmed from when I spoke with Illaman recently and he said he’d like it if it wasn’t treated as such a big thing when a grime MC jumps on a hip hop track or whatever, like it should just be the norm. I guess Foreign Beggars have been big pioneers for that.
S: Well Foreign Beggars have always had their fingers on the pulse, in terms of what’s going on in different genres, that aren’t a million miles from what’s going on in hip hop. But they’ve always done it in a way that isn’t contrived, like ‘What’s the next big buzz we can jump on?’, they’ve just always known and appreciated other things that are going on. If you think back to the 90s when you liked a particular type of music and dressed a certain way, you were quite defined by that. Where as now you look at the next generation and it’s not like that; people are much more likely to listen to anything they like and I think as time progresses that will happen more and more. I mean look at Levelz, it’s quite hard to define what they do and same with Mouse Outfit to a certain extent cos you’ve got these different elements coming through. And then even at the top level you see like Drake working with Skepta, so you know I think it is definitely starting to happen a lot more.
G: It’s been a few years since we heard an actual solo album from you; I mean the ones with Tom Caruana and Pete Cannon have been just you rapping, but I guess I mean one where you work with a few producers, have some features etc. Is that part of any future plans?
S: Well working with Pete really came about because – and I suppose I could give the humble, self-aggrandising version of that – I just wanted to share the love and why should I get top billing, when the producer puts in just as much, if not more work. But there is probably just as much weight given to the idea that it’s nice to have someone come in to share the admin side of it and paying for it [laughs]. It’s just that if you’ve got a lot of other people working on an album, say five producers and you’re the one who is having to get everything together and sorted, when they’ve all got their own things going on, it’s hard to pin people down and stuff. Where as if you’re working with one person and you’ve got one project you can say is going to be finished at this point, and you just need to do this, this and this, then it’s much easier to capture someone’s attention for the project.
G: What’s next for you once the tour is done?
S: Christmas! This tour finishes on 23 December and then I’m off to my mum’s the next day.
G: And music wise?
S: That will be the next thing with Pete. Whenever there is nothing going on with Mouse Outfit, I do stuff with Pete. So we’ll probably have another release, probably a single – we’re constantly working on things when Pete’s not doing a million other things here and there. I wanted to say he’s a jack of all trades, but that’s completely wrong. He’s got his fingers in a lot of pies, shall we say.
G: So you’ve got lots of stuff planned with him then, it’s kind of an ongoing thing?
S: Yeah well I really liked what we did last time with the Tonic EP cos it was just six tracks and if you’re doing something yourself, as independent artists, it’s a lot easier to do that than slave away on a whole album. Plus if you don’t have a huge budget for videos and what have you, I find it’s better to do things bit by bit, so I quite like working like that. It might not necessarily be an album in the works, but probably another EP.
G: And when you guys are working together, is it a fairly organic process or do you need to be fully prepared when you reach the studio?
S: I like to get something from him and then be pretty prepared to be honest. Get to the studio, lay things down and then maybe fuck about and work on something new. I don’t like to just turn up and work it out. Some people do. Sparkz for example, he much prefers working with people around him, but I quite like to just sit and write in the right environment, and then come to the studio with that.
G: That’s it from me, man, but have you got any final words or shout outs for anyone?
S: Err yeah shout out to Cat Roberts, shout out to Pete Cannon, Tom Caruana and all my mates & that! And you!